Wednesday, February 05, 2014

beauty, mate

You're looking at the Blue Mountains up there, just west of Sydney in Australia. I was living there ten years ago with Dave. I flew out to be with him a couple of months after we met, and the first time he took me to this spot—the Three Sisters, an ancient rock formation near the town of Katoomba, which may be the grooviest mountain town in all the world—my mouth was sewn shut in the face of that stupendous beauty. It wasn't comment-able upon. That giant, quiet valley hummed...see, I'm screwed already because I need a new verb. Hummed isn't bass enough to describe the depth and force of that place and how it seeped into me, shutting me up, leaving me wordless, unable to praise. It's just as well, as you can see. I still don't have the words. The not-comment-able-upon ruling stands.

We lived in Katoomba for a while, as well as a couple of other towns in the Blue Mountains, but Katoomba was where it was at. We started out together in the town next door, Leura, which is a little more posh and a little more uptight, and everybody goes to sleep there at 4pm. But Katoomba is a happening hippie town and we lived right on the main drag, which is almost unfairly lined with fantastic restaurants and cafés. Bam, bam, bam, all crammed next door to each other. We were in heaven.

But the greatest thing about Katoomba for me was its style ethos, or its amazing lack of one. It's the most liberating place I've ever lived, sartorially. People dressed however they wanted. And I don't mean that they were all artsy, hip, creative dressers. No, I mean that people dressed like they had just emerged from burning houses in the middle of the night just that second before you saw them. Colors all doing any old damn thing. Tee shirts and floppy pants—and I can't express how much I don't mean cool ones. Do you remember Garanimals? If you were a kid in the seventies, you probably ran across Garanimals. They were animal-coded tops and bottoms so kids could dress themselves and have things go. Giraffe-tag top, giraffe-tag bottom, check. This'll work. Katoomba was an anti-Garanimal nuclear bomb going off on the hour. Getting dressed when I lived in there was the easiest thing conceivable. Does this match? was not a question. You didn't even have to sweat is this flattering? You were good once you'd covered is this on. 

I'm thinking fondly about Katoomba because I'm thinking about beauty—more specifically, beauty standards for women—and cultural expectations and smallness and bullshit. I was talking about this today with a teacher of mine. We were investigating just how mired I am in all of these messages, and the answer is pretty fucking mired, as so many women are and have been since they were little girls. (Men have a different dragon to slay, we discussed, which is the lie about how their worth is wrapped up in their ability to acquire resources. Good luck, fellas! Take that dragon out!) A nickel for every time my focus wanders to how I look instead of how I feel or what I think and I could take myself out for a swish dinner a couple of times a week. It's tiring.

You know how sometimes you don't notice the ambient noise in a room until it stops for some reason? While I was talking to my teacher, Jim, that cultural noise stopped in my head for a few minutes. I can move it aside in the abstract for a little while when I remember to do it, but this was different. The lie dropped away for a bit, the noise stopped, and the contrast was dramatic. The high-pitched beauty-standards buzz was missing, and what took its place was not so much quiet as space. Looseness. More room to be myself. Then what I can only describe as anger-laughter arose. What the fuck? What the actual fuck had I been bothering myself with all these years? What is that? What is this idea that if I don't look a certain way, or remain somehow young forever, I'm failing, I'm not here, I might as well go? What the living fuck is that about? And then I thought of all the magazines I have lying around my house, Vogue and Elle and the like, and how I'm feeding myself this diet of lies. And I recognized that this matters. Vogue sells us the notion that there's a Right Way to Go About It All, and even though I roll my eyes with every issue—and tell myself that's part of the fun of it, and that I'm just here for the design, the appealing colors and shapes and patterns—another fearful, conforming part of me salutes my commanding officers there. Feeding that scared little conformist is probably my worst vice, in an unglamorous group of contenders. 

From when I was twelve to when I was twenty I wore makeup every day. Eye makeup in particular. No exceptions. Fuck no, are you kidding? It was unthinkable. The sun rose and I traced a cat eye with eyeliner and ringed my lids with dark eyeshadow and blotted my mascara wand on a tissue to prevent clumping and lo, it was good, amen. A friend in high school offered that I might look prettier without so much eye makeup but ten other friends asked me to do their eye makeup so I ignored the first friend and blessed the ten friends with cat eyes of their own. And then one winter break morning when I was home from college, I looked at my bare face in the mirror, my untraced eyes, and—inexplicably—I looked okay. I stared at myself for a few minutes, and then I ran downstairs. "Mom! Mom! Look. I'm not wearing any eye makeup. I think I'm going to go out Christmas shopping like this. Don't you think I look okay? Like, this is a gentle beauty or something?" She laughed, bemused, and said I looked fine. I was disappointed, because I felt like I'd discovered electricity. 

Conversely, right before I went to Australia to be with Dave, I got a bad haircut. The stylist misunderstood what I was asking for and chopped the back very short. It wasn't horrible but I definitely did not feel beautiful.  I was mortified, furious, inconsolable for a couple of hours. Here I was, about to embark on the biggest romantic adventure of my life, and I felt like I'd been robbed. A few days later I went out to dinner with a couple of friends and bitched. My friend Robert, who was older and wiser, told me that my hair didn't make any difference. I had that glow from being in love, he said, and nothing imparted more beauty than that. I thanked him but I didn't really hear him. I still felt ruined. 

This is the problem. Here it is. If a genie were to appear in front of me right now and offer me two choices:

1. I would look beautiful as long as I live


2. I would never care any more, and I would be eternally free of the question

I would hesitate. I don't like it, but I would hesitate. And that's not who I want to be. That hesitation is not what I want to feed. I want something larger and more raw for myself out of this life. I want freedom, I do. And if I'm talking about beauty, I want to let actual beauty be what I mean, the thing that hums and rings out from inside an experience. I want to strip the word from all industry that would make women feel small, and keep it for myself to aim where it's so true, so present it stops my mouth. 


Jen said...

And here I thought you were going to write about your Seahawks. wow
did this make me think. so glad you are writing again as I thoroughly enjoy your blog.

One Reader said...

I live in that hesitation.
This was so touching and well written, I don't have words.
Thank you.

Unknown said...

Thank you, that was just what I needed to hear. I have been feeling broken. Now I will reread this and reread this and try to take it to heart. Please don't stop writing this blog, now that I have found this, I don't want to loose it.

Lauren Z said...

Tina, I love you and I love your writing. In that order- which is a toughie because I would love your writing even if I didn't know you. But it's all the better that I DO know you because these words hum (to borrow a word) with your vibrant energy. I can actually see them coming out of your mouth, and I can see your hands plucking at the air in front of you to shape them. I love reading about your experience. You are brave and you are honest. And while a good mascara is hard to beat, I'd take you dressed up in honesty and bravery over eye makeup any day.

Anonymous said...

Tina, I came over here on The Bloggess wagon, and I'm so glad I did. Your writing is amazing--so much humor, candor, and gymnastic thinking. I'm slowly working my way back through the archives, and your stories (esp. of your children, but everything, really) move me all over the place. Thank you for rewarding all your new readers with these amazing new posts.

Tina Rowley said...

Aw, folks, thank you. Your kind words mean a lot, and I'm so glad you're here.

And Miss Lauren, that double love is mutual. So glad I know you and your beautiful brain.

Tina Rowley said...

(Two so glads in a row. Well, I'm just that glad.)

SunniS said...

This is so beautifully written and feels so important. I hope lots of women read it. Thank you for writing it.

Unknown said...

There's a revolution occurring in which women will not be held to some ridiculous and impossible physical standard. Go check out or find the Eat the Food site on Facebook. Both belong to Amber Rogers.

Anonymous said...

Vogue and Elle celebrate a type of beauty that is, frankly, both shallow and transient. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with physical beauty, but if the symmetry of your eyes or the swell of a gland is all that invokes ardor for you in others, then you're going to feel unattractive for much of your life. For Springtime (true Springtime) is the shortest of times and belongs only to itself.

Maybe you're having this realization here at midlife because: although you have physical beauty, you also possess, as I've come to know through your writing, the all-season type. Perhaps on some level you recognize it's time to shift focus from the waning to the waxing.

But the most important question is:

Are you still going to red-carpet blog?

Katie In NJ said...

Something terrible happened to me 20 years ago and as part of the result, I walked away from trying to be beautiful. I just let it go. Since then I have only worn makeup on "special" occasions. I don't wear a bra most of the time. And I feel free! Liberated! I stopped buying the magazines and started reading good books. I dress okay, kinda nice. But I don't much care what anyone thinks of my looks or anything else about me. And I am a lot happier.

I want to hear more about Dave and Australia!

Bev said...

For twenty years I was mistaken to be five or even ten years younger than I actually was. My skin was naturally radiant, my figure was, if not slim, height weight proportionate and easy to keep. I knew which parts to accentuate, which to play down so well, it was an art. I pretended not to care, actually thought I didn't care. I now recognize it all secretly delighted me. Oh, except for the part where it felt difficult to be respected because I was seen as a woman somewhere in her twenties, and so therefore not to be taken seriously. But even approaching forty, I was young! I passed! I had hit the genetic jackpot and would always be this way, always mistaken for younger. I would age like Susan Sarandon. Me an' Sue, two peas in a pod.

Then I got sick. Really sick. Really, really, really sick, and stayed sick for a long time. Almost three years. When I emerged, ready to try and resume my life as I had known it, I saw how much of who I thought I was? Smoke. Gone. In three years I had aged ten. No longer mistaken for younger, now I often feel I look older than I should. (Note that word, should. I hope it makes you angry. It makes me angry even typing it.)

I never realized how much of my self-worth hinged on my youth and beauty until it disappeared. I'd like to tell you after almost two years of living with my new face and body that I'm adjusting, that I don't care what people think, that I know there is still so much about me that is beautiful, that I know the people that love me (including my husband) don't care, but none of that is true.

I experience pangs of loss every time I get ready to go out. I actively dislike what I see in the mirror and actually feel conspicuous, caught, when seen in public by old acquaintances. I never feel "hot" anymore. I'm not sure I ever will again. I dream of a radical peel, a facelift, a personal trainer. And why? I've had my share of experiences with gorgeous men who turned me off the minute they started speaking, and less-than-handsome men that drove me wild with desire with their intelligence and intensity and presence. So why can't I feel that I could still provoke passion, my clearly middle-aged appearance notwithstanding?

Because I don't see it mirrored anywhere? That's part of it. (BTW I don't count women like Susan Sarandon and Helen Mirren. Talk about the genetic lottery. And tasteful "work" they've had done. And of course the Hollywood smoke and mirrors.)

But it's not just that. Memories flood back from my childhood of my mother, her friends, her sisters, any woman over 25, and the constant commands to "enjoy your youth while it lasts" "don't let the best time of your life slip away" "look your best and you'll do your best" "always smile, no man wants to date a grump" messages ad infinitum.

I'm rambling, but that's because you hit a nerve. This is such an important conversation and you've got a compelling voice. I hope you keep sharing your thoughts on beauty and aging and whatever the hell else, because they are a wonderful read and a voice so many of us are hungry to hear.

Tina Rowley said...

Thank you all for the comments, and Bev, thank you especially. I understand and relate just a little bit, having gone through a brutal sickness of unusual duration (though nowhere near as long as yours). This is important stuff, and I can't believe I didn't respond earlier. Your voice is pretty damn compelling itself.